Wine notes

Thursday 31 March 2011


The annual en primeur presentation of the 2006 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino last february has already caused widespread controversy even before the wines' official release date.

The Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio, eager to present some good news after a very testing couple of years, in which Italy's most famous wine was associated with fraud and illegal blending practices (click on the Brunellogate tag below), has awarded the 2006 five stars, the highest possible rating. Although 2006 was a very good vintage for Tuscany in general, and in some places even outstanding, many journalists present at the two-day en primeur tastings, in which more than 140 wines were presented, were almost unanimous that the wines generally failed to live up to the year's supposedly superior reputation.

There was widespread disappointment in the fact that too many of the wines seemed either flabby and lightweight (certainly no attributes for long ageing), or overripe while burdened with green tannins. Another outstanding feature, much speculated on by the assembled press, was the fact that almost all the wines were so much paler (some calling it 'truer') than the 2005s were only a year ago.

While many of the reports on these tastings have yet to appear (my detailed tasting report will follow in due course), from day one the Italian and International blogosphere was already buzzing with rumour and speculation as to why a supposedly great vintage has turned out to be of such modest quality in general.

At the same time the Consorzio seems unable to let the dust settle on what has come to be known as Brunellogate, with a recent controversial proposal to change the regulations for Rosso di Montalcino from being 100% Sangiovese to allowing the addition of other varieties, mostly international ones. An open letter from one of the region's premium producers, Mastrojanni, was immediately joined by several others, all arguing that this change would 'dilute' the wine and cause the loss of its identity. The disaffected producers also openly question why the Rosso di Montalcino regulations should be changed to accommodate producers who want to use international varieties, when the region already has a DOC, Sant'Antimo, expressly designed for those who wish to do so. At least for the time being it seems as though the Consorzio is listening and has decided to postpone this controversial proposal.

My picture shows German wine writer Steffen Maus, who plans to publish a book on Tuscan wine later this year, modelling the 'official Brunello shirt' left for us wine writers in our hotel rooms this year.

Monday 7 March 2011


After a two-year wait and much speculation about its format and style, the new Italian wine guide Slow Wine was finally launched in October with the 2011 edition - this after publisher the Slow Food organisation terminated its collaboration with Gambero Rosso on the Vini d’Italia guide.

During a press conference last April at Vinitaly, Italy’s and arguably the world’s largest wine fair, editors Giancarlo Gariglio and Fabio Giavedoni announced the forthcoming launch of the guide to a packed auditorium, and called it an ‘emotional moment’. Although not a single direct reference to the conflicts in the past with Daniele Cernilli of Gambero Rosso, which had led to the split, was made at any time, it was clear that Slow Wine would be different, the starting point being ‘let’s do something new!’ The contrast between the two guides could hardly be greater.

According to the editors, it is not so much Italian wine that has changed in the recent past, but the role of the oenologists, with a noticeable shift away from the cellar and into the vineyard. In other words, terroir is becoming more and more important in Italy, and Slow Wine wants to put this on the record. While it was stressed at Vinitaly that a big part of the guide would be determined by tasting, the focus would lie at least as much on the producers themselves. To this end, a substantial national network of teams was established to carry out more than 2,000 visits, scrutinising cellars and, much more importantly, vineyards, followed by in-depth discussions with every single producer, whenever possible tasting more than the current vintage available on the market.

This represents quite a change from the conventional clinical tasting-room set-up where wines are judged anonymously and under blind conditions. The logical consequence of this approach, nothing less than a revolution in the wine-guide business, was that the classical scoring system, be it scores, stars, or glasses, was made redundant. Still, without criteria to assess the quality of an estate as opposed to its produce, the work could not have been executed, according to Giavedoni. Within the ‘judging process’ there were three fundamental criteria: the actual taste of the wines; their perceived value for money; and the third, most complicated, criterion, the quality of the entire estate, its philosophy and its work processes. Both editors had stressed in April that the guide would not be about ‘organics’, but ‘about serious producers dedicating themselves to terroir’. However, the actual guide’s emphasis on exactly this aspect is impossible to overlook.

Thick as a bible, on the thinnest possible and, needless to say, sustainable paper, Slow Wine’s first edition runs to more than 1,200 pages. It includes profiles of 1,850 producers and estates and describes 8,400 wines from an initial 21,000 tasted, and could well become the standard lexicon for the ‘New Italy’. It introduces each wine-producing region, followed by producers’ profiles. Each producer profile includes the size of the estate, the number of bottles produced, a brief separate overview of the way of working in the vineyard, the producer’s philosophy and a description of the wines tasted. But the most important aspect, and undeniably connected to the Slow Food values and objectives, is a precise listing for each producer stating what sorts of fertilisers and treatments are used on the vines, whether weedkillers are used, if the wines were fermented by natural or selected yeast, and whether the grapes stem from the estate’s own vineyards or not.

But not even Slow Wine can completely refrain from some kind of scoring system, if only to reward with a ‘Chiociola’, the Slow Food Snail, the producers who have impressed the most in the way the have interpreted certain values that are central to Slow Food: the quality and taste of the wines, respect for terroir and environment, and the expression of identity. Of about 150 Chiocioli, not a single one is awarded to a producer using conventional farming methods.

Wines that clearly reflect their terroir, history and environment get a ‘Vino Slow’ award. And while most Italian wine guides use rather vague price bands, all wines described in Slow Wine come with an exact price tag, as well as an indication whether the producer sells directly to the consumer. Tellingly, at first glance all producers described in the guide do so.

With overview maps of each region, producers organised regionally and within each region alphabetically, there are additional columns discussing topics including grape variety and subzone descriptions, producer portraits, discussions on certain relevant publications and viticultural philosophies, as well as an overview at the end of each regional chapter listing the most important DOCs with their varietal makeup, there is genuinely little left to be desired. Slow Wine guide seems to have managed admirably well the balancing act of putting the spotlight on terroir-driven wines produced using organic methods without forsaking conventional producers.

The only thing that I couldn’t help noticing both during the press conference in May and now while looking through the impressive list of collaborators, is how very few women are part of the guide, something that looks rather conventional.

Except for this, Slow Wine is a true labour of love, and one can only hope that the English translation as well as the smart-phone application promised in April will be available soon.

Go attend the SLow Wine App launch and tasting go to

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Anyone halfway familiar with the maps of the World Atlas of Wine will immediately agree that while France's regions look so tidy and clear, Italy's tangled lines delineating its myriad regions and subregions seem rather to confuse than to clarify the picture. Often this is a direct consequence of Italy's DOC system, which tries to fit literally every corner of the peninsula where vines are planted into some sort of denomination. Some of these DOCs are of only theoretical value, and were registered in great haste just in time for the introduction of the OCM last August, when all legal decisions had to be relayed to Brussels.

However, it would be premature to think that all these DOCs, of which there are literally hundreds, are of little use. And while some of them seem to be the controversial result of strictly bureaucratic decisions, European law prescribes that every wine put onto the market needs to be traceable, and therefore from a registered spot of land. The main issue here is that quite a few of these DOCs are so new that sometimes even local producers don't know the exact boundaries, or opt out of the DOC in favour of an IGT, or IGP, a wine with a much broader geographical indication, so broad that in some cases it renders the significance of provenance completely meaningless, but allows more flexibility.

Another factor playing an important role is that quite a few of these DOCs, at least from a commercial point of view, have neither history nor track record. In this case it makes it hard to see what the denomination stands for, and even harder for wine lovers to make sense of it. Others are well known but their reputation is often tarnished by the high yields allowed or their opportunistic enlargement, literally diluting the wine quality.

I think it nonetheless more desirable to have more DOCs than fewer, as has been proposed by some wine critics and wine lovers. Fewer DOCs would certainly make any future wine map of Italy much clearer, but also less useful. While Italy has embarked on a thorough investigation of the intricacies of its many terroirs, it needs more detail, not less. And even if several of the DOCs seem to exist only on paper, in the future their existence may help producers work together to focus on putting themselves on the map metaphorically as well as literally. It is worth remembering that the international marketing of fine wine has come to rely increasingly on the unique aspects of any wine region. A large DOC such as Romagna DOC, for example, which may seem ideal for clarity's sake, can be so large that it does nothing to explain the differences in soil, altitude and macroclimate.

In this environment, it is clear that mapping Italy's regions is a herculean task which will take several generations to complete, even if, which is unlikely, no more DOCs (or DOPs - and I haven't even mentioned the many DOCGs) are added in the future. A man who has taken on this formidable job is Alessandro Masnaghetti, pictured above. Originally trained as a nuclear scientist, he left the Politecnico in 1988, the same year in which the Italian government decided to shut down all nuclear plants in the country, leaving him no choice but to reorientate his future.

Help came from an unexpected quarter. During his national service he started to record his earliest experiences of eating out in restaurants. He sent off these short 'reviews', describing the food as well as the wines poured during the meal, to Luigi Veronelli, Italy's legendary and most outspoken wine and food critic until his death in 2004. Veronelli was, and still is, a household name in Italy, and one of the first critics to have had his own television programme, Al Tavola alle 7, as early as 1974. It was broadcast at a time when Italian families would sit down for dinner. The impact of the medium cannot be underestimated, especially at that time, and there was virtually not an Italian who owned a television set who didn't know of Veronelli (see, for example, this broadcast on spaghetti alla chitarra. To Masnaghetti's great surprise, Veronelli responded and asked if he would be interested in contributing to the bi-monthly L'Etichetta (The Label), a magazine on wine and food. Masnaghetti admits that at the time it seemed a daunting task, for he had no real journalistic experience and would be working side by side with the great man himself.

A regular feature of L'Eticchetta was 'Le Vigne di Privilegio', or Privileged Vineyards, in which a specific vineyard producing outstanding wine was portrayed. Together with Daniel Thomases, Masnaghetti became responsible for the feature, and the first article he wrote for Vigne di Privilegio was about Pieropan's single vineyard Soave Classico La Rocca. He tells me that, looking back now, it was there that the seed was sown for his future project, Enogea, of which more later.

I met up with Masnaghetti recently and during our conversation he was unable to hide his admiration for Veronelli, who he considers the very first to start mapping Italy's wine regions. Although Veronelli's approach was much informal than what Masnaghetti does now, gathering information on vineyards in any given region by talking to the local farmers, or contadini, who help him identify the finest sites and, most importantly, their names, this nevertheless resulted in a list of vineyards known to produce the best quality. To Veronelli the concept of the cru had always been important, and the vineyard list became an integral part of one of the first comprehensive overviews of Italian wines, Vini d'Italia, a compendium of original labels of Italy's finest wines, a true labour of love, which was first published in 1961, and sold at the astronomical price of 11,000 lire, at a time when the average salary would have been around 70,000 lire a year.

Vini d'Italia, published by Mondadori, became the blueprint for Gambero Rosso's Vini d'Italia, havine the format of a comprehensive series of wine-producer profiles and a star rating system denoting the best. It also included a list of vineyards, which were considered the logical origin of quality. It shows, if anything, that although Italy has been stereotyped as a producer of bulk wine, the notion of single vineyards has always been part of its history, if less well documented and marketed than in certain regions in France.

Masnaghetti's first detailed map, of Barbaresco, appeared in 1994 as a free supplement for subscribers to Ex Vinis, a kind of Wine Advocate of which Masnaghetti was the editor. A great many copies were printed and Masnaghetti tells me that they were stacked in the office for a long time as, due to limited interest, they proved to be a hard sell. Still, this did not deter Masnaghetti from setting up his own periodical, Enogea, in 2005, a bi-monthly newsletter (he himself calls it a monografia di Terroir) in which the groundwork for the maps is published, including an overview of a particular region, a comprehensive tasting of the most important wines and, of course, maps. The newsletter, which is completely void of advertisements, finances the production of the maps, of which some 14 have now appeared. Rich in detail, the maps show all vineyard plots, the exposure, the division into subzones and every producer in the region. See here for an example.

Most of Masnaghetti's expertise in mapping a region comes from his extensive work in Barolo, a patchwork of many vineyards with shared ownership, and a large number of individual producers. He starts by taking photographs such as this, which become the basis for all further investigations. I asked him whether the local land register is not the first port of call but according to him that information is not always publicly available, nor readily accessible. The next step is to get a comprehensive list of vineyards, and here you see the Veronelli signature. But Masnaghetti goes much, much further, by visiting every producer of the region. When I asked him, astonished, how that makes sense, he told me that he never overlooks a single one, especially in the case of shared ownership of such highly priced land as Barolo. Neither would he easily consider doing the work as a commission for a producer consortium, as it is against his spirit, he said. He is also wary of possible arguments over where a certain cru vineyard ends and another, lesser plot begins.

Masnaghetti told me that in case of a dispute, his role as journalist is as useful as his experience. According to him, when you see a hill covered with vineyards, it may look like any other hill, until you start to observe it closely and, if you have the passion, according to Masnaghetti, 'the hill will speak for itself'. For example, a very good indication for quality, or the absence of it, is the actual planted vine itself, as it 'cannot lie'. In Bussia (the famous cru in Monforte d'Alba) you find Dolcetto in certain plots where Nebbiolo cannot be ripened satisfactorly or where the quality of the fruit is too modest. This gives a perfect indication of where the best plots are and that not all the plots within the traditional cru borders are equally good. The same goes for snow, another fantastic parameter: where it melts first, you will find the warmest spots, and hence the best terroir for Nebbiolo in this case. Sometimes there are historic recordings (for example the first maps of Barolo by Renato Ratti, which he drew up in 1979 on the basis of earlier historic material) on which he can literally draw, but this is not often the case.

Producers will speak too, but they may not be able to tell Masnaghetti exactly what he needs to know. It is because of this that he considers it of the utmost importance to speak to each and every single producer, because the wide range of sources will give more balanced information. Apparently, he has yet to meet a single producer who refused to cooperate, or allow him to walk into his or her vineyard to investigate directly or to have the panoramic point of view needed to draw the vineyards.

I asked him if his demarcations are sometimes smaller than those of common wisdom or as indicated by other maps. He confirmed this, but he also claimed that there has never been any real dispute once the maps come out, as his criteria are completely clear and verifiable and each plot is described accordingly. But he is wary of mapping vineyards that are in the process of being officially registered, for fear of seeing his map rendered useless. This is why he has only partly mapped Serralunga and Monforte d'Alba since these communes are still working on an official delimitation of their crus. However, he has already observed that the communes of Barolo and Monforte d'Alba have created crus that more or less encompass the entire commune, while Serralunga and Castiglione Falletto have really worked out the best single sites within their borders.

When I asked him how much time it took to map Barolo, for example, Masnaghetti mentions only three to four months, without the producer visits, that is. But I expect that it would take at least double that time for any normal person who was less of a workaholic. He visits about 10 producers a day. During those visits he doesn't taste wines (he requests samples to taste at home), but asks for permission to go into the producer's vineyard alone. There he investigates vines, soils, exposure and correlation to neighbouring plots, while considering any aspect of the landscape that can give clues, even absent ones. For example, in the Langhe the lowest parts of any hill would consist of trees and shrubs because these spots were considered too cool to ripen grapes satisfactorily. Nowadays in more and more of these sectors trees have been replaced by vines.

Is there no history of terroir in Italy, I asked Masnaghetti, thinking of France. He denied this, while stating that the notion of terroir and cru nowadays is inflated. Because yields in top-quality regions are today so much lower than they once were, wines that were once mediocre are now much better - so much so that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between very good and great wine, especially when tasting wine when it is young. However, he thinks the real problem, at least for Italy, is not the absence of a cru but the fact that it is communicated badly or not at all. He says that if he were to visit a region and ask the producers about the specific characteristics of the region's wines, most of them would not know what to say as it is not on their horizon - not yet at least.

At the end of our discussion, I wanted to know what the drive was for this enormous work. Masnaghetti grins and says per divertirmi, to amuse myself. But the real reason is surely the satisfaction of accumulating knowledge in order to map a terroir and to transfer his passion to other wine lovers. At least as important to him is to express the fact that wine is so much more than an alcoholic drink. And then, again grinning, he told me that it also gives him great satisfaction, even if he knows only 90% of a given region that he has mapped, to know that he knows it better than most producers there. This knowledge Masnaghetti is more than happy to share with wine lovers, at the incredibly reasonable price of €7 per map.

To order the maps go here:

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